Albuquerque, New Mexico
THE TELEPHONE jolted me out of my reverie. Hazel Harris, my secretary, aide, and surrogate mother, had left for the day, but the answering service could field the call. Ninety percent of my clients were attorneys, and there weren’t many of them working this time of day. But when the phone shrieked a second time, I glanced at the unfamiliar long-distance number on the caller ID and caved in to curiosity.
“B. J. Vinson, Confidential Investigations.”
“B. J. Vinson. What can I do for you?”
“What’s this?” a gravelly voice demanded. “Some rinky-dink outfit where the boss answers his own phone?”
Curiosity has its limits. Without another word I dropped the receiver back into its cradle. It usually takes a while to recognize a problem client, but this obnoxious prick had done me a favor by convincing me of it within a couple of sentences.
I swiveled my chair around to return to what I had been doing, savoring the view from the north-facing window of my third-floor office in one of Albuquerque’s historic buildings at Fifth and Copper. I often undertook this ritual before heading home. It was my favorite vista at my favorite hour in my least favorite time of year—about three-quarters of the way into evening on a muggy summer’s day made uncomfortable by the lingering humidity of an earlier quick-moving thunderstorm. Fortunately a more hospitable autumn hovered just around the corner.
The phone intruded again. Determined to cut this guy off at the pass, I snatched up the receiver, but before I could say anything, a loud laugh threatened to burst my eardrum.
“Short fuse, huh? Okay, I can respect that. Look, I’m in Hawaii on business and lost track of the time difference. Sorry to call so late.”
The bastard was pretty good at defusing things.
“Let’s start over, shall we? I’m Anthony P. Alfano. I run Alfano Vineyards in Napa Valley. I’ve got a problem out there in New Mexico, and I think you’re the guy who can help me. I got your name off the Internet. I like your website. It’s a solid professional layout.”
He left me little recourse except to respond gracefully. “Thanks. I assume you checked me out with someone too.” I exhaled and tried to ignore the feeling I was being manipulated by an expert. “Okay, what’s the problem?”
“My son. He’s missing. Probably nothing serious, but I need to locate him.”
Orlando Selvanus Alfano—was this family Italian, or what?—twenty-one and a graduate student in history at UCLA, had left on July twenty-second for an extended vacation. He and his traveling companion, another student named Dana Norville, intended to explore the natural wonders of the great Southwest and sample the wares of the local vineyards. Even though they were three days late returning home, the vacationers were still registered at the Albuquerque Sheraton on Menaul and Louisiana across the street from Coronado mall. Repeated phone messages left at the hotel and on Orlando’s cell phone had gotten no response. The two were going to miss the first classes of the fall semester if they didn’t return immediately.
“I take it the other student—this Dana—is his girlfriend.”
Alfano’s pregnant pause and terse answer raised my antennae. “It’s Dana James Norville. One of those names that can go either way.”
So that’s the way it was. Alfano needed a gay PI to look for a gay son. “Does he? Go either way, I mean?”
His rage was palpable. “Only one way. The wrong way.”
“And your son?”
Instead of the expected explosion, Alfano sighed heavily. “You have to understand something—Orlando’s not queer. Hell, most of us jerked off with buddies when we were kids. We grew out of it. No harm done. Lando’s just a slow developer. He hasn’t come out of it yet, but he will.”
“How about Norville?”
“That bastard’s a dyed-in-the-wool pansy, and he’s contaminating my son.”
I bit my tongue at the sophomoric outburst. “For your information, Mr. Alfano, I’m pretty ‘dyed-in-the-wool’ myself. I think you need to call someone else.”
“Now wait a minute.” Anthony Alfano obviously was not accustomed to getting the brush-off. “I know all about you. And except for that—nonsense—you’ve got a good reputation. You can move in both the straight world and the gay world. You’re the one I want. Find my son, Vinson, and send him home to his mother and me.”
“It’s Mr. Vinson.” Might as well set the bigoted SOB straight right at the beginning.
“All right, Mr. Vinson, score one for you. Are you sure you’re gay? You don’t sound it.”
“Does your son?”
“But in your dreams he’s not twisted, right? How about Norville? Am I looking for a flaming queen?”
“Of course not. Lando wouldn’t hang out with someone like that. No, I’ve got to admit, looking at Dana Norville, you wouldn’t suspect.”
“Then how can you be certain?”
“I did a quick background check on Norville when the two of them started bumming around together, and the guy was clean. But when they… uh, got close, I took another look and found the man Norville had been shacking up with before he latched onto my son.”
“Very well, Mr. Alfano, I’ll look into the matter. I’ll do it for Orlando and Dana, but you’re going to be footing the bills.”
He promised to have his secretary in California call Hazel tomorrow with the credit card information for my retainer and to provide anything else we requested. I asked him to e-mail color photos of the two men. If they were as close as he believed, there would be a few around somewhere. He also gave me his son’s cell and pager numbers.
After hanging up, I tapped my desk blotter with a gold-and-onyx letter opener fashioned into a miniature Toledo blade. I sighed aloud. The Alfano case had all the hallmarks of developing into a nightmare. Working for attorneys was easier; they understood the process. Private individuals had a warped idea of what a PI did, which was nothing more or less than gathering information. But I was committed, so I might as well make the best of it.
I returned to the visual meditation of the landscape outside my window. As nature’s glow dimmed, man-made lights came alive: amber lampposts, white fluorescents, flamboyant neons, yellow vehicle headlights reflecting off wet pavement, and far in the distance, a tiny spot moving slowly across the sky—one of the aerial trams hauling patrons up Sandia Peak’s rugged western escarpment to the restaurant atop the mountain.
By leaning forward, I caught the faint, rosy underbelly of a western cloudbank, the lingering legacy of a dead sunset. Was that what had drawn Orlando and Dana to the Land of Enchantment? Spectacular scenery and surreal sunsets? Or was it our rich heritage of Indian and Hispanic art? The two were history majors, and Albuquerque had a long history. It was approaching its three-hundredth birthday, while Santa Fe and many of the nearby Indian Pueblos had longer lifelines.
Beyond my line of sight, the city’s original settlement lay to the west where one- and two-storied adobe shops—some ancient and some merely pretending to be—hearken back to their Spanish colonial roots. Now known as Old Town, it was founded in 1706 by Governor Francisco Cuervo y Valdez as the Villa del Alburqurque—some say Ranchos del Alburqurque. In either case, the Spanish colonial outpost was named in honor of New Spain’s viceroy in Mexico City. The second r of the duke’s name disappeared in 1880 with the coming of the railroad to New Town, located two miles east of Hispanic Old Town, a signal the Anglos had successfully wrested the heart—if not the soul—of the community from its founders.
It seemed as though a similar battle was being waged between Dana Norville and Anthony Alfano for the heart and soul of Orlando. Papa Alfano had given me cell phone and pager numbers for his son. He kept his pup on a short leash—or tried to. Not only that, but the old man had checked Norville out at the first signs of a budding friendship between the two. I’d bet Alfano was accustomed to throwing his weight around, railroading or buying whomever he wanted, including his son. My instinctive dislike of the homophobic bully made me wonder how far he would go to “turn his son around.” Maybe Orlando went on the run to get out from under the thumb of his tyrannical patriarch.
Spinning back to the desk, I went on the hunt for information over the Internet. According to Dun & Bradstreet, the Alfano Vineyards’ net worth was somewhere around $100 million. Although California is notoriously anal-retentive about releasing its criminal records, the superior court websites I searched revealed nothing on Alfano, but that only meant he wasn’t a known murderer, rapist, or kidnapper. He would have bought his way out of anything less than that. Orlando, on the other hand, had a sheet in Los Angeles. From the limited information available, it looked to be nothing more than a couple of disturbing the peace charges. Norville’s record was about the same, leading me to believe they had been activists in their early university days. Maybe they met while agitating for some cause or the other. Gay rights? Voting rights?
There was no answer at their room in the uptown Sheraton. Well, no surprise there. The call to the kid’s cell phone went to a message center. I left a callback on the pager without much hope. Things are never that easy.
I had finished dictating instructions for the Alfano contract and was reaching to snap off my old-fashioned, green-shaded banker’s lamp when the telephone rang again. Maybe I’d caught a break. I hadn’t, but the sound of Paul Barton’s baritone sent my energy level soaring.
“You still at work?” he asked.
“Just finishing up. How about meeting somewhere for a late dinner?”
A deep chuckle. “Meet me at 5228 Post Oak Drive NW.”
“Yep. And I have a surprise for you.”
“Let me guess—green chili stew and warm, buttered tortillas. Uh… what’s for dessert?”
“I’ll leave that to your imagination.” He hung up in the middle of a wicked laugh.
IT TOOK a little effort to get my mental and physical pistons running in sync the next morning. Living with a champion swimmer in his early twenties wasn’t always easy for a guy my age—a month shy of thirty-five. Paul can get by on less sleep than I can and has no compunction about waking me in the middle of the night with his not-so-subtle nuzzling. But I wouldn’t change a thing.
Despite a night with little sleep, I got into the office at a decent hour. Hazel had Alfano’s contract ready and awaiting my approval. I signed with a flourish, handed it back to fax to his secretary, and gave my secretary/office manager/surrogate mother the once-over. This sixty-two-year-old gray-haired model of efficiency was undergoing a transformation. First a feather-cut bobbed style replaced the bun formerly held in place by tortoiseshell combs. Then her black-rimmed spectacles had vanished in favor of gold-framed designer glasses. Today the granny look was replaced by a smart chalk-striped, two-piece business suit and a white blouse with about a yard of frilly lace at the throat hiding at least one of her chins. I smothered a smile. Charlie Weeks, the retired cop who sometimes handled my overflow cases, had been hanging around the office more than usual lately.
“What?” She peered at me through her new lenses.
“Nice suit. New?”
“Not particularly.” She lifted her powdered nose enough to make a statement. She had no compunction about poking into my business but resented me meddling in hers.
“Looks good on you.” I reached for the telephone as she marched into the outer office.
The Sheraton on Menaul confirmed Alfano and Norville were still registered but refused to divulge any further information. Deciding against driving uptown to try and talk my way into their room, I undertook another approach.
Gene Enriquez, my old partner at APD, had recently made lieutenant, and he sometimes chaffed at the rein the promotion put on his fieldwork. When I called he indulged in some bellyaching about being swamped but agreed to meet for a cup of coffee at Eulalia’s in the La Posada on Second and Copper, a short walk for each of us.
The central core of my building opened onto an atrium soaring through all five levels. As the elevator doors parted on the ground floor, my eyes automatically swept the waxed tiles. A year ago a man had died on those hard clay squares when he went over the railing after attacking me on the landing outside of my office on the third level. Sometimes I still saw smears of blood on the floor, but it was an illusion. The blue-black terra-cotta was scrubbed spotless and polished to a high shine.
I exited the building and headed east on Copper, pausing to say hello to the Sidewalk Society, nine life-sized bronzes by the Santa Fe–based sculptor, Glenna Goodacre, that were grouped on the corner sidewalk outside the Hyatt Regency. After greeting the cast figures almost daily for the past few years, I had reached a few conclusions about them. The young woman with a briefcase was said to be an up-and-coming CEO, but I’m convinced she was a 1950s lawyer. The construction worker and his foreman, who sported a battered, old-style broad-brimmed hat, represented the thirties or forties. It had taken me some time to tumble to the fact the statues reflected different time periods in Albuquerque’s more recent history.
Gene yelled for me to wait for him as he strode briskly across Civic Plaza. “You always talk to statues?” He was a little breathless after running to beat the light change at the intersection. A stocky Hispanic with regular, pleasant features that seem vaguely Polynesian, Gene always appeared slightly frazzled, a consequence of dealing with the Albuquerque Police Department, a wife, and five kids on a daily basis.
I accepted both his hand and his ribbing. “Every time. Get some of my best answers from them.”
“I keep expecting one of the rookies to arrest the kid.” He motioned to the bronze of a teenager with a skateboard.
We entered the La Posada by the north entrance and stepped into another world. The interior was done in Spanish Territorial with aged wood copings, corbels highlighted in scarlet and turquoise, and heavily carved lintels. Nichos, small shelves in the white plastered walls, held carved wooden santos and ornate Mexican tinwork. This hotel had once been part of the Hilton chain—Conrad’s first in New Mexico, as a matter of fact—but had been recently sold, yet again, and was scheduled for a makeover in the near future.
Gene and I selected a heavy oak table stained ebony by the passage of time, and claimed a pair of sturdy straight-backed chairs padded in green and gold. We spent a few minutes bringing one another up to date on our lives.
After making a brunch of the restaurant’s éclairs and a wedge of superb lemon meringue pie dribbled with chocolate, Gene was through chitchatting. “Okay, so what do you want?”
“What makes you think I want something? Can’t I call a pal without having an ulterior motive?”
I pretended to think for a moment. “Okay then, I’ve got a client looking for his missing son and the kid’s traveling companion.” In less than two minutes, I’d briefed him on the situation.
“So they’re like that, huh?” He wiggled his hand back and forth, a gesture that was supposed to convey something. Gene knew me too well to be sensitive about my sexual orientation.
“You mean are they gay? Yeah, I’d say so.”
“And you want to get in their hotel room.”
“Seems a logical place to start since one of their fathers hired me to represent the family.”
“These two, they’re emancipated, right? Adults.”
“Both are twenty-one, according to Alfano.”
“Hmm. Alfano gonna file a missing person’s report?”
“He will if you think it’ll help.”
“Naw. We’ve got enough to do without looking for a couple of kids who’ve run off to play hanky-panky. But if they strayed across the border into Arizona, they might be cooling their heels in some county sheriff’s jail as we speak. They take that shit seriously over there.”
“Possible, but not likely. They could be in real trouble, Gene. Alfano keeps a tight rein on his boy, and the fact he’s looking for him is troubling.”
“Maybe the colt got out of the family pasture and is feeling his oats. But okay, have the old man file a report, and I’ll see if I can get us inside the hotel room. Unofficially.”
I picked up the tab to see what kind of damage Gene had done to my pocketbook. Anthony P. Alfano’s pocketbook, actually.
Gene caught me peeking at the check. “Come on, you can afford it.”
“Maybe so, but it’s not my expense, it’s my client’s, and I don’t know how picky he is.”
Gene Enriquez is a good detective and a smooth talker, at least smooth enough to get us access to the room occupied by—or held in the names of—Orlando Alfano and Dana Norville. There was little to see. The pair had taken their traveling bags with them, leaving behind nothing personal except for two bundles of clothing destined for the laundry, the only sign they intended to return. One set of duds was expensive Abercrombie & Fitch, the other bundle was Gap. It wasn’t hard to figure which clothes belonged to what dude.
The breast pocket of one shirt held a carefully folded chamber of commerce brochure extolling the virtues of El Moro’s Inscription Rock and the Ice Caves near Grants. A rumpled pair of trousers—the expensive ones—gave up a not-so-neatly folded tourist road map of the state.
The bell captain remembered the two men asking his advice about the Enchanted Circle in the Taos area. They had specifically asked about white-water rafting along the Taos Box.
The clerk in the gift shop remembered the pair because, she blushingly admitted, they were both so handsome. Shortly after checking in, they picked up several pamphlets from her, expressing interest in the Turquoise Trail, a fifty-mile National Scenic Byway up Route 14 to Santa Fe studded with quaint, historic villages. Orlando and Dana had been especially curious about Valles Caldera, the thirteen-mile-wide crater of an extinct volcano south of Los Alamos, the Atomic City. Unfortunately, they also asked about Lincoln County and Carlsbad Caverns to the south and east, as well as Mesa Verde and the Bisti badlands in the northwest corner of the state.
As we drove back downtown, Gene agreed to put out a bulletin on Orlando Alfano’s Porsche, an orange 2008-model Boxster S, California vanity plate LANDO 06. The kid probably got his undergraduate degree that year.
“A buggy like that’s bound to have a navigational system with a GPS satellite signal,” Gene said.
“A Magellan 750 Plus. The old man has his attorney contacting the company to get the present coordinates. They’re touchy about giving out such information, and Alfano is bound to have more clout than I do. The way I read this guy, he’ll have everyone from the governor on up calling the company if he can’t buy the data from them.”
“You do attract a certain type of client, don’t you?”